Freedom of religion is a hallowed and important liberty in our constellation of rights enshrined under Bills of Rights, the Canadian constitution, and the host of other legal instruments governing our land. Despite my atheism, which is born of a Camusian belief and challenge that humanity, and not a belief in any imaginary God, is a better and more sustainable antidote to extremism and hatred, I certainly would not want to be one to call for the dismantling in any way of the freedom to practice one’s religion. In part, the New World was colonized by people fleeing religious persecution centuries ago in Europe. There is also an international covenant of such freedoms recognized by most countries in the world.
Despite the erstwhile quality of these religious freedoms recognized at all levels of government, there is throughout the land a growing malaise and it has the unmistakeable characteristics of a questioning of the place of religion in our society. The Islamic faith has become the principal object of such analysis and debate but Christianity, Judaism and others are not far behind. This current 'obsession' with Islam is partly understandable given the recent events in Europe and the Middle East, the likes of ISIL, Al-Qaida, the ongoing Israeli-Arab conflict, Syria and Iraq, Iran etc. At the end of January 2017, it has also become clear that we are also dealing with the other side of the equation of extremism as evidenced by the recent terrorist attack against a Quebec City mosque. In reaction to that specific event, some citizens, obsessed with the ritual of naming and re-naming rights ad nauseum and instructing everyone else about the defence and correct enjoyment of such rights, have added their voices to why religion has remained high on the Canadian political agenda. Elected representatives reading their hate mail in the House of Commons have acted to ensure a longer shelf life to the media event in question. This may seem odd since the country is supposed to be secular and the state free from the promotion of ideological and religious ideals. Given the extent of the crimes committed against those of the Muslim faith in Quebec City, one might expect such a sustained and valorous response. Nevertheless, there are those who whisper about the self-interested intentions of the dogmatic left and the political class, who play a leading role as cheerleaders of the national protest.
The media in this country has also had a hand in elevating religion to the continued attention of all and rushing to support the absolute defence of religious practices. Instead of educating and informing the political class and the Canadian public about Islam and scolding both social actors when appropriate, they have contented themselves with selling their wares by participating in and actively encouraging a form of social hysteria. Nothing is wrong about feeling bad for the victims of violence and showing emotion and empathy but the prolonged media coverage looks more like the work of self-interested hypocrites spinning endless vacuous webs of insignificant trivia whipping up mob reaction in favor of some ill-defined concept of religious freedom. If this is due to a lack of knowledge, the oversight can be fixed. If it is a truth telling problem, that is much more difficult to remedy.
Instead of educating and nurturing a rational and informative national dialogue, the media and their acolytes in the political class continually banalize and simplify the subject in an effort to maximize ratings, money and political prestige. The common good is the last thing on their minds; that is, informing the public about the events themselves and explaining the components of a potential de-radicalization strategy. For example, what do we know about the person who killed the six people in Quebec City? The police release no details, the media says nothing of much significance and those who constantly call for an end to racism are silent with respect to the lack of information made available to the public, the same public which is bombarded with the need for more tolerance and anti-radicalization measures. Where did the gunmen get his guns? Did he express his political views at the university where he studied for some time? Were his views aired on internet? Did he have co-conspirators? The media including the political class and its security chiefs all ensure that the public lacks the tools necessary to make its own judgement about the event, its nature, the culprit and why it occurred. This is unconscionable in a free and democratic state. The fourth estate is not doing the due diligence required of it in a democracy.
Public and elected officials' ignorance, the ideological left and right along with the hymn reading mediocrity of the political centre - all of these forces have combined to elevate religion to the status of an absolute and inalienable right without regard to any responsibilities associated with the freedom of religion. They deserve part of the blame for the extremist response as the Canadian political class multiplies its self-serving statements about Islamophobia and this or that expression of racism. The information cleansing of events like the Quebec mosque attack are generating a cynical reaction to this attempt to universalize and force so-called ‘societal values’.
Is freedom of religion an absolute right that can be exercised independently of any conditions? Does the person who practices their religion have any societal responsibilities to fulfill?
Those wishing to elevate freedom of religion as an absolute, at the same level, or perhaps even higher than freedom of speech and thought, have created an imaginary world of rights without responsibilities, an ideological absolutist conception of the law not consonant with any of Canada's legal traditions, a new superficial morality or rule of the mob in virtue of which those who oppose the new absolute are anti-Islamic, anti-Christian or anti-Semitic etc. It is of some real concern to see how little faith the political class puts in its own people and how little information the public is given by the very people who are supposed to protect it. Continuing to work for religious tolerance in this most intolerant fashion will doubtless bring about more disgust, more hatred and less tolerance. And more whispers will be heard.
The right to practice one’s religion and the citizen’s right to free speech are both essential freedoms in any state wishing to call itself ‘a democracy’. They must be present among other rights and responsibilities and each of these two rights must find a limit in the other. In this way, neither are absolute as each provides a living context within which the other can flourish. If one seeks to eliminate the other, then the democratic equation begins to break down. Political cynicism grows and more whispers are heard.
We must ensure that this does not happen here. This is our is democratic responsibility, in the absence of which these rights become privileges, and authoritarianism can take hold.
What has happened immediately south of our borders should be lesson to us. Whispers can easily turn into howling when political cynicism takes hold. Those who dogmatically insist on making religion an absolute right, are self-interested parties who are playing with fire and flirting with a most unsavory form of social authoritarianism.